History of Congress and the Capitol
This is the story of one of the world's great experiments in government by the people.
For more than two centuries, a new Congress has convened every two years following elections that determine all the seats in the House and one-third of those in the Senate. While the individuals change, the institution has endured-through civil and world wars, waves of immigration and great migrations, and continuous social and technological change.
The Congress we know today was created after the failure of a government under the Articles of Confederation, which left most powers to the states. In 1787, a convention of specially selected delegates proposed a new constitution that strengthened the national government and established a representative branch composed of a House and Senate.
From the beginning, the two bodies of Congress were meant to be different, yet interdependent. James Madison said they would be "as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on society, will admit." As a result, the House and Senate have different rules, traditions, and cultures. Yet in their shared responsibilities they function as the nation's single lawmaking body.
Flexibility in meeting change is vital to the success of American democracy. And seldom has change come so quickly as in this era.
After World War II, veterans returned home eager to find jobs and start families. The postwar baby boom, combined with immigration, doubled the U.S. population over the next half century, increasing demands for schools, housing, and goods; and economic growth was unprecedented. In order to expand the benefits of American freedom and prosperity, Congress passed laws aiding the elderly, disabled, and poor, as well as historic civil rights legislation.
A four-decade Cold War shaped American foreign policy in the last half of the 20th century. Troops fought wars in Korea and Vietnam, and were stationed around the globe. When the Cold War ended, America faced new regional conflicts, as well as the growth of global terrorism. Confronting the challenges of an increasingly interdependent world, the American people continued to express their views within this singular forum of representative democracy—the Congress of the United States.
An Enduring Emblem
The Capitol is one place—but it fills three roles. It’s a revered national symbol, a showcase of history, and a working office building. Balancing these functions is a great challenge.
The Capitol gained an east front extension in 1962. Its campus grew with three new congressional office buildings, an additional Library of Congress structure, and a federal judiciary office building. In 1993, a bicentennial celebration of the Capitol’s first cornerstone honored 200 years of its architectural, artistic, and political life, and in 2008 an underground visitor center opened. Like the country it serves, the Capitol continues to evolve and inspire.
A building’s most basic job is to provide shelter. That role seemed in jeopardy in 1938. Structural analysis showed that the 80-year-old roofs over the House and Senate wings were no longer safe. Congress allocated repair funds in 1940, but the demands of the war effort and a steel shortage at home held up the project for nearly a decade.
By the end of World War II, the scope of work had expanded to include installing new ceilings over the House and Senate Chambers plus a change in decor. Congress decided to exchange the out-of-fashion Victorian decorations with a Colonial Revival or “early Federal” look. Material shortages delayed the first phase of remodeling until 1949 and 1950, when the roofs were replaced.
The Virginia sandstone facing the Capitol’s center building had deteriorated seriously by the mid-1900s, and its details were hidden beneath layers of paint. One way to solve these problems—and gain much-needed office space—was by building marble-faced additions to the east and west fronts. An east extension (first suggested in 1863) would also provide greater visual support for the iron dome.
House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas single-handedly secured funds for the east extension, completed in 1962. The west front project had a far different fate. Architects and historic preservationists raised a storm of protest when the idea for its extension was proposed in 1964. After years of rancorous debate, Congress rejected it. Instead, Congress ordered restoration of the west front, which was accomplished from 1983 to 1987.
Two of the Capitol’s most historic rooms had fallen on hard times by 1960. The Old Senate Chamber was a meeting and party room. The Old Supreme Court Chamber had been divided into offices for the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Senator John Stennis of Mississippi spoke out about the deplorable condition of these noteworthy spaces. In 1961, he introduced a bill to restore the rooms.
Stennis’s measure met opposition in the House of Representatives. It took 11 years for the appropriation to finally win approval. Once the project was under way, however, some of the nation’s foremost scholars and restoration experts guided the work to completion. The Old Supreme Court Chamber was opened to the public in 1975, followed a year later by the Old Senate Chamber.
The Capitol continues to grow and change. So does its art collection. Following a time-honored tradition, Congress commissioned a number of new works. The sculptor Lee Lawrie completed three plaques, Courage, Patriotism, and Wisdom for the Senate Chamber redecoration. Allyn Cox designed murals and decorations for the first-floor House corridors, and various sculptors produced 23 relief portraits of notable lawgivers for the redesigned House Chamber.
Capitol Hill’s first nonrepresentational sculpture, Alexander Calder’s Mountains and Clouds, was installed in the Hart Senate Office Building (1985–1986). This period also brought a new appreciation for historic works of art—and heightened concern for their proper care. A 1981 survey assessed the condition of the Capitol’s murals. Three years later, Congress began to allocate funds for their gradual conservation and restoration.
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 brought significant reforms in committee staffing and operations. These increased Congress’s need for hearing rooms and staff offices. Four new buildings helped to meet the demand: the Dirksen and Hart Senate Office Buildings (opened 1958 and 1982) and the Rayburn and Ford House Office Buildings (opened 1965 and acquired 1975).
The Library of Congress staff and collections also were expanding. Completed in 1981, the Madison Memorial Building (one of the world’s largest library structures) relieved space shortages and made possible the restoration of the Library’s Jefferson and Adams buildings. The underground Capitol Visitor Center, opened in 2008, covers about 580,000 square feet on three levels, giving Americans a more informative, comfortable, and secure way to visit their Capitol.